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When low-tech triumphs: a cave rescue

Emergency workers resort to Vietnam-era phones, telephone cable and glow sticks in the search and rescue of three cavers lost under the streets of Austin, Texas.

Three college students were rescued Sunday after spending two days in a narrow limestone cave under the streets of Austin, Texas.

What stands out to me about the rescue effort is that high-tech gear was of little or no use to the emergency workers.

Cell phones and even radios were useless in the underground complex. Rescue workers resorted--successfully--to a Vietnam-era phone system, thousands of feet of telephone cable, and glow sticks, according to an article in the Austin-American Statesman. And, oh yeah, just as important were the skinny rescue workers who were willing to subject themselves to the claustrophobia-inducing cave.

Central Texas is chock full of caves. Until Sunday, I had never heard of Airman's Cave, where the cavers got lost, even though it lies directly under a couple of popular shopping centers in south Austin that I frequent.

This 2-mile-long cave isn't like the caverns of renown. For most of the way through Airman's Cave, you end up on your hands and knees or on your belly. There are areas where the cave is only about 18 inches wide.

Airman's Cave, which is not gated or blocked off, is considered one of the most difficult caves in the region to navigate, according to a member of a local caving group quoted in the Statesman. It takes an expert caver about 12 hours to navigate, the caver said, and only 40 to 50 people have ever made it through.

The three University of Texas students--two women and one man--entered the cave on Saturday morning. They'd been smart enough to tell a friend to call for help if they weren't back by midnight. That friend surely agonized much of, if not the entire night, before calling 911 at 5 a.m. Sunday.

After 11 hours of searching, the three cavers were found. They were not injured, though they had run out of water. Altogether, the trio was underground for about 35 hours before emerging late Sunday night.

The only disappointment--other than the fact that high-tech gear was pretty much useless--was the students' response after they emerged from the cave. Dirty and dehydrated, they profusely thanked the rescue workers. However, all three said they would "absolutely" try it again.

"Really, nothing went wrong except us getting lost," one of the students told reporters.

Don't get me started about the cost of their adventure to taxpayers.